a visit to the Land Institute, Salina, Kansas

I recently visited The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas for research to fold into my upcoming fieldwork themed issue of .continent magazine, and am so inspired by their activities that I’ve compiled my documentation and notes here. Iowa has places where the soil is 100 feet deep (due to glacial tilling) however, Kansas farmers can’t be careless with their soil, and have to worry about erosion, which is a huge problem exacerbated by current farming techniques. This patch of hillside is untouched prairie- dense with a variety of plants, and there is no erosion.

For the last 10,000 years seed plants have provided 70% of our diet. Most good seed producing plants are annuals, so agriculture developed around that. annuals have better seed production, but perennials have better root production. But in nature 70% of plants are perennials and 30% are annuals.

Inspired by the prairie, The Land Institute’s mission has been to develop hybrid grain producing perennial grasses, whose harvesting won’t result in soil erosion.

To get to the Land Institute from Topeka, I drove through Kansas’ Flint Hills where the limestone bedrock is right at the surface of the landscape, so large plants can’t grow, there just isn’t enough soil. It’s so green in this picture because this month has been unusual - this past decade there have been terrible droughts, but this month, so far, more rainfall has accumulated than the entire annual average.

Down the hill, in between that gap in the trees, is a monoculture of Kernza - a hybrid perennial wheat grass developed by the Land Institute. It’s still under development, they won’t patent it because they want to share it with humanity; but they did trademark the name.

Annual wheat is harvested when it’s a golden brown and its moisture content is down to about 17%, and then the plant is just dead. But when the Kernza grass is ready for harvest, its stalk is still green with life where it meets the soil, and two weeks later, instead of a dead field, it will be back to where it is in this picture. So the field’s soil isn’t exposed and susceptible to erosion.

They tag every plant, and use gps to know exactly where they’re located in the field. Before gps, tracking was difficult because the plants at the edges of the rows are often disturbed by tires or animals, so when a farmer/scientist is trying to count it’s hard to know where to begin.

A portable gps that you can stick next to a plant in a field to identify it. Those trees were planted to provide wood to heat their greenhouse in the winter, but the problem of keeping wood in/near the green house is that it introduces many other organisms into your controlled area, disturbing science experiments. The trees are small because they were planted too closely together.

The building on the left is going to house two giant refrigerators so they can mimic the winter. One challenge with doing genetic work with plants is that the life cycle is much longer than, say, the life cycle of a fruit fly- which can develop from an egg to reproducing adult in ten days.

On the left are roots of an annual grass, and on the right are roots of a perennial grass. You can see how all the annual’s roots need to do is get as many nutrients as possible to the grain, and then the plant can die while propagating via those seeds. Whereas the perennial’s survival depends on outliving long dry periods and the cold winter, so its roots are much bigger. The roots also hold the soil together and prevent erosion.

Scott holding some sorghum, a grass that yields a lot of grains, often fed to cattle, and also used as a cereal. The Land Institute is trying to make a perennial of it by fusing it with Johnson Grass.

A better shot of the Sorghum. You can see how short it is - no higher than a few feet - which makes harvesting easier because it’s not blowing everywhere. The problem the scientists are running into is that the Johnson Grass (a perennial) they’re trying to hybridize it with is much taller. So they’re trying to discover mutations in their perennial hybrids... mutations that are shorter plants, but high grain producing like the sorghum. They’re partnering with a community in South Africa (I think) who is undertaking massive annual sorghum farming to deal with their population boom, but it’s resulting in soil runoff, so in the long run it’s not sustainable. That community isn’t bothered by its tall height because they plan on harvesting it by hand. With our big machines it’s gotta be a uniform height - lower to the ground.

I can’t believe how big some of these grasses are - Big Blue Stem can get 10 feet tall. I also didn’t know that corn and sunflower are also grasses.

Once a day for thirty minutes these platform containers fill with water to nourish the grasses. It’s pumped from one end, and flows down a wee slope to the other, and then filtered to be used again.

This scientist is counting and weighing grains produced by each plant. Recently they found a grain that was twice as long as the others, so they’re trying to multiply it. So much of the job is repetitive weighing and counting, and the figures are usually the same, so there’s a special interest in the outliers.

Threshing the grain seed from the chaff.

Here’s a blower machine to separate the seed from the chaff.

Organized grains, and some of their equipment - much of which they’ve had to build by tweaking existing farming equipment.

Where the scientists map the chromosome pairs to enrich the gene pool.

You can see how the Kernza doesn’t produce that many grains. They’re also trying to improve the gluten quality. One weird thing about wheat’s protein is that it bubbles, so you can make bread, but the Kernza flour is better for biscuits. But the Kernza is really high in protein.

These bags prevent cross pollination.

marin abell